The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt
“I stay in a place that people leave.” This single, defiant sentence reveals the tone of David Giffels’s new book of essays, The Hard Way on Purpose. In the book, Giffels writes with equal parts loving pride and critical acumen about Akron, Ohio, the city in which he was born. Though this collection of observations and personal stories is inconsistent at times, it paints a vivid, if fragmented, picture of the tenuous hopefulness that persists amidst the ruins of American industry.
Akron was known, for much of the last century, as the Rubber Capital of the World and was home to all of America’s major tire manufacturers. With the decline of American industry, in general, and the American automotive industry, in particular, Akron’s once-promising future dimmed. Detroit may have garnered more national media attention for its dramatic downward trajectory, but Akron and other Rust Belt cities, too, have suffered. As Giffels came of age in the 1980s, Goodyear, Firestone, and all the other tire companies moved their headquarters (and the union jobs that went with them) when they were purchased by larger international companies. So Giffels was arriving to a party that was already winding down—Akron lost its major industry, its jobs, its identity, and its population in quick succession. But, unlike so many of his contemporaries who left, Giffels chose to stay and make a life in his hometown. He started his writing career with the Akron Beacon Journal and later became a professor at the University of Akron where he continues to teach English.
The subtitle of the book is Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt and Giffels shifts gears frequently between personal history and social commentary. Sometimes that switch is abrupt and desultory, resulting in a book that occasionally feels haphazard and repetitive. Nevertheless, Giffels’s analysis is often novel and pithy, and he offers nuanced insight into the fading American heartland:
In a city that had always been described by its smell, students at the university invariably defined their college experience by the scent of Wonder Bread. But it didn’t smell like bread. It smelled like bread baking. There’s a difference. In a manufacturing city, the distinction was vital: the experience defined not by the product, but the making of the product.
The distinction he makes between the commodity and its production is subtle but shrewd. In Akron and the rest of the Rust Belt, according to Giffels, the work is more significant than the result.
Though he is from Akron, which is the primary subject of The Hard Way on Purpose, Giffels’s critical perspective often extends outward to Ohio as a whole. To examine both real and metaphorical failure, he frequently references Ohio’s sporting history, which is less about championships and victories than it is about painful near-misses. As he puts it, “I’m from a place that always almost wins.” The defection of Akron-born Lebron James from Cleveland to sunny Miami, which infuriated Ohio fans, is just the most recent and most public of a long list of losses. And yet, Ohioans refuse to admit defeat. They are, in Giffels’s mind, “the masochists and optimists that represent the demographic cornerstones of the Rust Belt.” They are people accustomed to losing who press on anyway. “Give us something to root for,” he says. “We’ll take anything.”
Giffels also examines Ohio’s political and social status as a benchmark for ordinariness. In one essay, he reminds us that every four years the presidential election seems to, rightly or wrongly, hinge on this one Midwestern state. He goes on to point out how retailers, like K-Mart, also use Ohio as a testing ground:
In the same way that Ohio seems invisible and irrelevant to the rest of the country until it comes time to elect a president, so too is it the kind of place whose clientele might seem nondescript until it comes time to put a mainstream, middle-class, mass-market shopping concept through its paces. Then a little eureka-bulb lights up. Ohio!
Giffels notes that he and his fellow Ohioans both resent and cherish the attention. They want to be viewed as relevant without being condescended to.
Too often, the book gets bogged down in meandering and chaotic personal narratives. Giffels is much more successful when he examines Akron’s fate in a larger context. What he describes, while certainly applicable to his hometown, is also emblematic of a larger struggle in contemporary American life—the lamentable homogenization of a once-colorful American landscape:
National chain stores and restaurants were proliferating, with an ever-growing sense of sameness. … The idea of exploration and discovery was being replaced with comfort and familiarity. It was becoming impossible to get lost, which is where the imagination thrives. Yet, even though we always knew where we were, we had a nagging sense of disorientation. If the Waldenbooks self-help aisle in Denver was identical to the one in Milwaukee and identical to the one in Jacksonville, then the idea of being somewhere was more like being anywhere, which is uncomfortably close to the idea of being nowhere, or of where being an irrelevant notion altogether.
Amidst this growing sense of sameness, Giffels argues, people and cities desperately grasp at something, anything, to call their own. And Akron has indeed given much to the culture. Giffels offers up as evidence rubber tires (of course), Chuck Taylor basketball shoes, professional bowling, Devo, ice cream cones, and (perhaps) even the ubiquitous hamburger. But while extolling Akron’s virtues, Giffels also questions the authenticity of such an abundance of riches:
Either Akron was unusually culturally significant—special—or every place had its own version of this and was equally culturally significant, which would mean that my place was not special at all.
We all want to be special, like our mothers assured us we were. Cities are no different. “As a result,” Giffels writes, “we have tended toward a pathological compulsion to seize homegrown cultural coattails.”
As a storyteller, Giffels pales in comparison to his fellow Ohioan essayist, James Thurber. His prose is coarse at times and the book as a whole is uneven. Nevertheless, the book offers a worthwhile perspective. Giffels’s story is not only about the fate of one Midwestern city—it is about how we define who and what we are. Perhaps more importantly, he poses a relevant question. Speaking of Akron and the entire Rust Belt region, he asks, “Is it something beyond salvation, or something to be saved? And what exactly is ‘it’?” Giffels does not offer a definitive answer, but he helps us understand the question, which is an essential start.